How do you create an authentic psychopath on screen? More to the point, how do you do it while at the same time making her the star of the show, funny, charming and sometimes even sympathetic?
That was the task facing psychiatrist Dr Mark Freestone when he came to work on the first season of break-out hit Killing Eve with creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to flesh out the character of assassin Villanelle and explore her obsession with Eve Polastri, the British intelligence investigator charged with capturing her.
As season two arrives on BBC1 – throwing us straight back into the action just 30 seconds after Eve has stabbed Villannelle – we talk to Freestone about the roots of our anti-hero’s psychopathy, how it makes her increasingly resourceful in adverse situations like the one she now finds herself in, what makes Villanelle a charming psychopath – and where her relationship with Eve might take the duo next…
“The whole original idea of psychopathy is in this mask of sanity,” says Freestone. “This mask that comes down which is not the true person, but allows Villanelle to interact with other people. This seething aggression and unfiltered desire underneath this paper mask. You take it away, and what comes out? The murderous rage, the manipulation, the sadism.
“Now, she’s wounded, so she puts on this different mask of vulnerability. And that’s surprisingly easy for her. She suddenly goes from predator to prey, literally in the course of an episode.
Jodie Comer plays Villanelle
“With Villanelle, her adversity allows her to pull on her more innate strategies. She’s quite a resourceful woman. She’s lived through a very abusive, neglectful childhood with no mother and a father who was connected to organised crime, she’s trained as an assassin. She’s got a lot of skills to fall back on.
“If anything, Villanelle is more psychopathic when she’s in a vulnerable position. It’s boredom that leads to sloppiness, not adversity.”
Freestone’s approach to making Villanelle an authentic psychopath was to take the character in author Luke Jennings’s source novels – which he says “nailed a primary psychopath very well” – and treat her like he would a real-life case-study, writing a formulation which included a score on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which is commonly used to assess the presence of psychopathy in individuals.
“She scored 32, which is incredibly high for a woman,” says Freestone.
Indeed, female psychopaths are extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that most psychological tools used to assess psychopaths are based on men.
Freestone says Villanelle’s psychological profile is also based upon that of a male psychopath – a deliberate choice to underscore her savagery.
“Lots of literature on female psychopaths presented them more as a manipulative cat’s paw-like figure that sees them manipulate dumb men to do their dirty work, or the typical femme fatale,” he says.
“I have to say it’s just a little bit clichéd. At the time we thought wouldn’t it be cooler if she was just a really bad f***ing psychopath? Like a male psychopath? That tickled me and I thought that was a better way, giving that loose branding to the character.”
Despite her chilling persona and murderous rampages though, we often find ourselves rooting for Villanelle. Her glib nature and status as a style icon have established her as a hugely popular character.
This is in huge part thanks to Waller-Bridge’s excellent writing and direction, and Jodie Comer’s now BAFTA-winning portrayal. But it’s also down to the audience being as seduced by Villanelle’s superficial charm as her victims.
“Villanelle is not just a dead-eyed killer,” says Freestone. “She’s got the gift of the gab. What makes Villanelle charming? It’s partly because she’s not in the business of killing off good people – they tend to be bad people or good people who inadvertently head into the crosshairs.”
Villanelle’s likability also stems from Freestone’s efforts to balance her authentic psychopathic characteristics with behaviour and desires that, at least outwardly, can seem sympathetic and relatable, even if they are not driven in the same way they would be in a normal person.
“For Villanelle to be sympathetic and charming, there has to be some driving force that is something we can relate to, and it’s about striking that delicate balance,” he continues. “We can’t give her something cuddly, because that’s not how psychopaths work, but I think her struggles and her desires are interesting and can make her appear sympathetic.
“The biggest challenge was to make her appear authentic and consistently exhibit her characteristics as a psychopath, but not sadistic to the point where it would alienate people.
“We started to think about Villanelle’s complex relationship with her father and the absence of any mother figure. Villanelle is searching for some kind of attachment figure, but she’s not quite sure what a mother figure looks like. So we wondered what that would look like for a psychopath and went from there.”
One question many viewers have been asking is whether Villanelle’s obsession with Eve tips over into love, but Freestone believes that is an emotion Villanelle is entirely incapable of feeling – and he completely rejects the idea that the pair are involved in a lesbian affair.
Sandra Oh plays Eve Polastri
“A psychopath is ‘what can I take from you?’. And that means you become simply an instrument rather than a person in your own right, and that is quite disturbing.
“So a psychopath’s understanding of love – it’s a finely-tuned jealousy. In Villanelle’s case it’s a little unclear what she desires. Is it mothering, or another kind of intimacy?
“People have kicked the idea around they were lesbian lovers, but that’s simply another cliché that we all wanted to avoid.
“Villanelle has appeared in Eve’s house – she knows what kind of life she lives. She murders her best friend Bill. Is it more that she wants to be part of life? She wants to be in this kind of setting? There is an obsession, but what is this obsession over? This question is left open.
“But it will never end well. No psychopath forms a healthy obsession.”
Villanelle’s obsession isn’t one-sided though, as Eve becomes as equally fixated on her psychopathic counterpart – to the point where their behaviours begin to mirror one another.
“As Eve gets closer to Villanelle, she starts to exhibit some of the traits that Villanelle has,” Freestone says. “We see more manipulation, more lying, more aggression on Eve’s part and she recognises this within herself. She’s just a bored civil servant at the beginning and it’s through this relationship with Villanelle that she gets in touch with something far more primal.
“And when you unveil that, it causes her to ask quite a lot of questions about her life choices and who she is and whether she’s happy. I think having that parallel process taking place alongside Villanelle – they both form something they can be attached to.”
But the obsession between the pair grows ever more dangerous the longer it’s left undefined – and could lead to their mutual destruction.
“With Eve and Villanelle’s dynamic, they both have to find out what they’re seeking from each other pretty quickly,” Freestone explains. “And if they don’t resolve that, it’s going to be horrendously destructive.
“What series two is going to bring is this dynamic of trying to test out other areas of their relationship to see where it takes them.
“I have this sense of it just breaking and leading to this awful meltdown. Their relationship is [referred to as] cat and mouse, but it’s more like Trump and China – trying to see how far they can push each other before something really terrible happens. That’s the nature of their obsession.”
Killing Eve returns on Saturday 8th June at 9:15pm on BBC1. The full series will be available on BBC iPlayer after the first episode airs